How have you been coping with all the recent news of church scandals and clergy abuse of minors? All this news makes me sick to my stomach. Part of me doesn’t want to think about it, much less talk about it. But that’s part of the problem, isn’t it? The silence, the covering-up, the pretense that sexual abuse by clergy isn’t really real.
But it is.
And while church officials talk about accountability and processes to protect youth and reform the system, we parents need to take the bull by the horns and talk about it with our kids (at least middle schoolers and older). If we don’t, they will catch wind of it somewhere else and feel confused and scandalized (as they should), and their faith may be seriously compromised. Here are three points to think about and possibly talk about with your kids:
1. Don’t canonize people until they’re dead.
We Catholics love our “living saints”, and we have a tendency to put our priests, especially the really holy ones, on a pedestal. But priests and nuns are still human, and like any of us, they are still prone to sin, even serious ones. When I see the adulation with which some of my children regard certain nuns, seminarians, and priests (because they are super cool and holy), I know I have to gently remind them that these people are still human and imperfect, as we all are.
Allegedly, one of Cardinal McCarrick’s victims was a boy named James whose parents were close friends with McCarrick. According to James, his parents were devout Catholics and terrific parents. But his parents didn’t believe him when he complained about McCarrick. I can sympathise with his parents. We know several holy priests whom we love and admire, and I can only imagine the shock, pain, outrage, and incredulity we would feel if one of our children told us they had been abused by one of these priests. In light of today’s scandals, we would have to believe our kids. But forty years ago, such a thing was unthinkable. We can hardly blame parents of abuse victims for their disbelief, but these disturbing events are a grim reminder that we must place our trust in God alone, and not treat any human like a demi-god. We must be innocent as doves but wise as serpents, keenly aware of human frailty, especially in our over-sexualized society.
As parents, we tread a fine line: We want our children to trust their priests enough to confess their sins to them (of course, in reality, they are really confessing to Christ, and the priest is acting in persona Christi). And we want to encourage healthy relationships with these holy men who can inspire and guide them. At the same time, great prudence must guard both priest and child. Thus, we need to remind our children that if any person, whether it be friend, relative, teacher, coach, doctor, priest, etc., touches them so as to make them feel uncomfortable or acts in a way that compromises their holy purity, they can count on us for protection. Anyone is capable of falling into grave sin, ourselves included. Hence the need to constantly be on our guard against temptations, to strive tirelessly to grow in holiness and not give in to lukewarmness and mediocrity.
2. We absolutely, indispensably need to pray for priests
When St. Therese of Lisieux was a little girl, she looked upon priests with a sense of awe and veneration. As a teen, she went on a family pilgrimage to Rome along with some priests. During the pilgrimage, she saw first hand the shortcomings and weaknesses of some of these priests. She realized they were not the saints she believed them to be, and so she resolved to pray for them. As a Carmelite nun, praying for priests became one of her most important duties. She even “adopted” Fr. Maurice Belliere, a young missionary priest with whom she held correspondence by letter.
If only we had more such nuns dedicated to praying for priests! But we don’t, and these priestly scandals are a call for lay people, especially families, to pray for their priests and bishops. So often we take our priests for granted. These men so generously give their lives to the service of the Church. They are there for us during the most important moments of our lives: baptisms, first Communions, weddings, funerals. They hear our confessions, celebrate the sacrifice of the Mass for us, anoint us when we are ill, teach, encourage, and guide us. We often ask for their prayers for our intentions, but how often do we pray for them?
Now, more than ever, our priests need our prayers. The shortage of vocations means that many parish priests have to live on their own. Loneliness can set in, and with it, temptations against purity. These priestly scandals mean that many priests will lose their credibility. Even worse, priests are now much more vulnerable to false accusations. It only takes one disgruntled or vengeful person to destroy the reputation of a priest. Several years ago, we knew a wonderful parish priest who gave excellent homilies. My husband would sometimes go to mass twice in a row just to re-hear the homily. Sadly, this priest was falsely accused of sexually harassing a woman. She later admitted that the accusations were false, but the damage was irreparable. The priest suffered so painfully that he took a sabbatical, and we have never heard of him since. What a huge loss for the Church!
There is a Catholic tradition that a single priest brings a thousand souls with him to Heaven or Hell. No wonder the spiritual battle for the souls of priests is real and fierce. So we need to pray for our priests – for their holiness, purity, and protection. And if we can make reparation for their sins, all the better.
3. The Gates of Hell shall not prevail
And I tell you, you are Peter, and on this rock I will build my church, and the gates of Hell will not prevail against it. -Mt 16:17-19
Our Lord knew Satan would launch continual attacks on the Church in an attempt to destroy it. And indeed, even from its inception, the Church has suffered persecutions from without and scandals from within. Even among the twelve apostles there was Judas the traitor. In the early church there were priests who took concubines despite their vows of celibacy; some even engaged in homosexual acts. In the Middle Ages, we’ve had a handful of terrible popes, popes who were greedy, corrupt, and immoral. (And one case for Papal infallibility is that although these popes were immoral, they did not change Church teachings on faith and morals.) In the 16th century, the sale of indulgences by many church officials provoked the Protestant Revolt. Human nature is, indeed, weak. Time and time again, members of the Church, both lay and clergy, have fallen terribly, scandalously short of her teachings. Yet time and time again Our Lord has raised great saints to reform and purify the Church.
Here’s an example: The Protestant Revolt was a great blow to the Catholic Church. Much of Europe was lost to the Protestants, and one would have thought that the end of the Catholic Church was near. Instead, saints such as St. Ignatius of Loyola, St. Charles Borromeo, and St. Teresa of Avila brought about much needed reform and revitalization to the Church. And let’s not forget it was during that time that Our Lady of Guadalupe appeared to Juan Diego, and within ten years, millions of Mexicans converted to the faith.
The Gates of Hell shall not prevail.
Today we feel like the apostles when Christ was asleep in the boat during the storm. We’re rocked and shaken by appalling church scandals. It may seem as if the Church has hit an all-time low, for what could be more sick and evil than pedophilia? But Christ is at the helm, and He will steer his Church through this ghastly mess. It may mean another reformation. The Church will need to be pruned and purified. As Pope Benedict (then Fr. Ratzinger) predicted in 1969, the Church will need to be smaller and stronger before it grows again:
From the crisis of today the Church of tomorrow will emerge — a Church that has lost much. She will become small and will have to start afresh more or less from the beginning… And so it seems certain to me that the Church is facing very hard times. The real crisis has scarcely begun. We will have to count on terrific upheavals. But I am equally certain about what will remain at the end: not the Church of the political cult, which is dead already, but the Church of faith. It may well no longer be the dominant social power to the extent that she was until recently; but it will enjoy a fresh blossoming and be seen as man’s home, where he will find life and hope beyond death.
As painful and horrific as the priestly scandals are, they do not mark the end of the Church. Rather, the fact that they are being brought to light signals the beginning of a new beginning. Some will lose their faith in the Church and leave, but others will hear and heed the call for greater holiness. For, where sin abounds, grace abounds even more (Rom 5:20) Like scorched land after a wildfire, the Church will rise from the ashes of these tragedies renewed and ready for new growth and evangelization.
So those are the thoughts I’ve been sharing with my kids.
Don’t canonize people until they’re dead.
We absolutely need to pray for priests.
The Gates of Hell shall not prevail.
What have you been telling you kids in regards to the recent Church scandals?